As the saying goes, if you want to do something right, you’re going to have to do it yourself.
After a string of failed games by now-defunct Acclaim Entertainment, “South Park” creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker retook control over future game development with the creation of their in-house entertainment label, South Park Digital Studios.
Their increased involvement with games bearing the name “South Park” has resulted in a couple of true-to-source XBox Live Arcade titles, but even those weren’t what fans wanted. Fans have been clamoring for a game that looks, feels and sounds like the animated show.
To that end, South Park Digital Studios entered a partnership with Obsidian Entertainment, the studio responsible for some of the best — albeit buggiest — role-playing games ever made, including the massive “Fallout: New Vegas” and cult favorite “Alpha Protocol.”
The result of that partnership is “South Park: The Stick of Truth,” a role-playing game written by the very people responsible for 17 seasons worth of TV episodes, a feature-length movie and equal parts hilarity and controversy.
“South Park” fans can rest easy, knowing that there were no punches pulled on the PC version I played and that the game is just as offensively hilarious as the show. It’s important to note that there are five different versions of the game, with only the North and South American versions being completely uncensored on all platforms. Germany and Austria’s version has removed some of the humor in the console version and Nazi symbolism from all versions. The rest of Europe and Russia will have censored console versions and the Australian version is censored across every platform.
The game’s humor matches and exceeds the level of offense the show generates. It even shocked me, a lifelong fan who has seen every episode multiple times. It should go without saying, but if you’re easily offended, this is most definitely not the game for you.
You have been warned.
On the other hand, if you’re familiar with the adventures of Stan, Kyle, Cartman, Kenny and Butters, you’ll feel right at home with the setting of “The Stick of Truth.” The game is visually indistinguishable from the show, and each character is voiced by the voice actor who brings them to life on the screen.
The amount of fan service packed into every aspect of the game is impressive — you’ll meet up with the Underpants Gnomes, visit Tweek’s family coffee shop and hang out at Cartman’s house. Every piece of loot you gather is a callback to the show. Even the familiar banjo twang that opens each episode greets players when they boot up the game. From start to finish, this is a true “South Park” experience.
The game itself revolves around the conceit that the boys are playing swords and sorcery, so the game is filtered through their eyes. Cartman is a wizard king, Butters is a noble paladin, Kenny is a beautiful princess, and they’re all at war with the dastardly elves (Stan and Kyle’s faction).
You play as the new kid in town who helps to turn the tide of the make-believe war, thanks to the power of your magical flatulence. Of course, in true “South Park” style, everything goes off the rails very quickly and you must eventually help save the town from a great evil that I won’t spoil here.
You’ll create your own version of what the new kid looks like, choosing one of the four classes (fighter, wizard, thief or Jew), then from a decent array of customization options. You’re then dropped into the town of South Park. You can explore most of the town from the start, though you’ll open up new areas (including the exotic, faraway land of Canada) as you gain new abilities. Like most role-playing games, you’ll gain side quests, experience points and loot as you traipse about talking to folks.
Along the way, you will amass a crew of companions, though only one of them at a time can accompany you. Most of them have a special ability that will help you get past certain obstacles and each have their own abilities in combat. For instance, Butters has the ability to heal people in and out of combat, while Stan harnesses the power of his dog to … well, short out certain electrical sources on the map.
You can easily swap between buddies from the menu, which is set up to resemble a social media website. Non-playable characters are added to your roster of friends, which will increase the amount of perks you unlock, giving you more reason to explore the town and complete quests. The game is largely driven by the narrative, though, so while there are side quests, these are relatively sparse.
A fair amount of time is spent in combat, which is handled with a turn-based timing system. You have regular, heavy, ranged and special attacks, each of which are tied to the timing of your button presses. A prompt will be show in the attack animation and if you time your button press correctly, your attack will do more damage. The same mechanic applies to defense. Enemies will adjust to your tactics, forcing you to switch between melee and ranged attacks. Fans of games like “Paper Mario” will feel right at home with this system. Personally, I’ve always found this type of system engaging, because you’re doing something in every encounter.
The loot you gather along the way is broken up into different categories and is handled surprisingly well. Weapons, armor, status-affecting patches and add-ons can be swapped out to give players a great amount of control over the look and feel of their character. A worn gas mask, for example, shows up on your character model and protects from gross-out attacks — the game’s take on poison status. A number of purely cosmetic items are found along the way, and clothing and armor can be colored however you’d like. Sadly, these changes can only be applied to the new kid, your companions will gain some special abilities as the game progresses, but you can’t change their weapons or appearance.
The mix-and-match patch and add-on system can make even the tougher battles manageable (looking at you, Mr. Gore), but it can create some wild unbalances in the difficulty level. Toward the middle of the game, you’ll get a combination of patches and armor that will allow you to attack again after you kill an enemy and since each attack will generally kill an enemy, you’ll just breeze though a large chunk of the combat without taking a scratch. I eventually forced myself to use a different setup, just to bring back some challenge to the battles.
It’s worth noting that Obsidian is going to do wonders for their reputation with the technical execution of the game. Generally, you take the good with the bad when playing an Obsidian title, and they’ve gotten somewhat of a rep for putting out buggy games. “The Stick of Truth” shows what they’re capable of accomplishing without tight time constraints. I had zero bugs in the 13 hours of play time on my gaming rig. I can’t speak to how stable it is on consoles, but there have been some streams going online showing some small amounts of slowdown in some areas, but nothing else.
The length is definitely on the shorter side for the genre, but the game is largely without filler. I’m a huge fan of lengthy games like “Skyrim,” but some of the greatest entries in the genre have been short, sweet and to the point. “Stick of Truth” left me wanting more exploration possibilities, but I felt that 13 to 15 hours was plenty of time spent in a game revolving around fart jokes.
When the end-game credits rolled, I was a little sad to see it go, but even happier I never felt I had to slog through poorly-paced filler. There is some room for improvement, mostly in the difficulty balance and restriction on only one companion at a time. If you’re not a fan of “South Park,” most of the game’s humor will go over your head. But for long-suffering fans, who at one point had to put up with “Chef’s Luv Shack,” having a fantastic “South Park” game that looks, feels and plays like a season of the show is a dream come true. And even though it’s easily the best game to use the South Park license, it’s also a solid role-playing experience.
Bottom line: If you’ve ever been a fan of South Park, you owe it to yourself to buy this now.
Platforms: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, PC (tested)